In the next few entries I will discuss what everyone can expect at each step along the way as they progress in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from white belt to, hopefully, one day, black belt. In my previous post, I discussed how there is an unavoidable path of progression in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. What I wanted readers to get out of my last entry was to realize that we must all experience each step in the progression of our learning if we hope to lay a foundation with which to be successful on in the future.
“You Have to Learn the Rules Before You Can Break Them.”
A purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is truly a major accomplishment. I remember when I started in BJJ, a purple belt was almost unheard of. Most of the BJJ schools, or associations, were run by blue belts with maybe a stripe or two, tops. It wasn’t until I went to my first Gracie Jiu Jitsu Training Association tournament in California that I saw purple belts compete. I definitely noticed the difference in their styles and approach to applying the same moves that I knew as a blue belt at the time. So, what makes someone ready for their purple belt?
While at blue belt you are still fine tuning the technical aspects of moves and positions. Your instructor teaches a move or a position, and you should be practicing and repeating it. Blue belts should not be trying to “reinvent the wheel” at this time in their progression. The goal of blue belts is still to learn the moves and how they work together in sequences. Blue belts should also be focusing on defense and countering moves, so that they can survive bad positions and counter attacks from their opponents.
As I mentioned in my previous blog entry on blue belts, a major pitfall for new blue belts is to feel like they’ve already mastered the basic moves of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and they are ready to move on to more advanced moves and positions before they are ready. I spoke to a friend of mine about this once and he put it into words perfectly. He said: “You have to learn the rules first before you can break them.”
Due to the success of our gym, we get a lot of visiting students from other schools and affiliates of ours. Often I will spar with blue belts and I see a disturbing trend. Some of these lower belts are trying to use new moves, and advanced positions, that they are technically not ready for yet. Though there is relevance for any move and position, white and blue belts should hold off on using Marcelo Garcia’s “X Guard”, or Eddie Bravo’s “Rubber Guard” until they understand the basic positions first. If I spar with a blue belt, and he automatically tries to go to a Rubber Guard position, it makes it even EASIER to pass their guard than had they just use a traditional guard position. Again, I am not saying these moves don’t have a valid place in our sport. But I am a firm believer that lower belts should learn the basics before they move on to more advanced positions.
“Finding Your Own Way”
As a purple belt, you have learned the basic moves that are the foundation of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Not only have you learned the basic moves, you have also learned how some of the moves work together in sequences. One might think that this is the hardest thing to master about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. However, there is much more that needs to be learned. The legendary Rickson Gracie has been conducting a series of seminars where he teaches what he calls “Invisible Jiu Jitsu”. How can Jiu Jitsu be ‘invisible?’ When I teach classes, I try to get beginners to see that the essence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is “what happens in between the moves.” Teaching someone how to twist a limb, or apply a chokehold is the easy part. The hard part is getting your opponent into these positions when they know the same moves you do. Sometimes a lower belt will come to class and be eager to show me the newest move they saw in a video, or book. They maneuver around and finally end up in the position just as they remembered it. When they are all set, they’ll ask me “What do you think of this?” My question to them is always the same; “How do you plan on getting me there?”
This is where a purple belt starts to turn the corner in their progression. As a purple belt, you’re goal is to now take all the moves and positions you’ve learned and come up with your own strategy and game plan as far as how you plan on getting your opponents into submissions and positions. The greatest advantage for students at our gym, Warrior Way, is that we have several high level instructors teaching classes. Each of the instructors are proficient in different areas of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and students have the ability to learn the same moves from different people. In doing this, they can hopefully find the way that is best suited for them. If you are fortunate enough to have multiple people to learn from, as a purple belt you can take all the things you’ve learned and rearrange them into a system that works best for you. You are going into your Jiu Jitsu ‘toolbox’ so to speak and finding out when and where to use all the tools you’ve been collecting at white and blue belt.
Again, purple belts will still need someone to watch over them and guide their training as they discover and create a system that works best for their size, strength, and athletic ability. There will be times when a purple belt will get stuck or need help figuring out a position. This is where a purple belt can turn to brown and black belts and get help figuring out how to transition from one position to another.
Purple belt is where a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner will learn the most during their progression, because it is where they will the most about their Jiu Jitsu.
"Opening up Your Toolbox"
There is a great sense of pride that comes with getting that first big promotion in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. A new belt of an actual color, and no longer being "a beginner." After about a year of training, those that have stuck with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can expect to receive their blue belts. For some it takes less time and for others longer. A blue belt signifies that you made it through the initial phase of surviving and learning to not use strength while in bad positions. A blue should have an understanding of positions and be able to execute basic moves using good technique. During their time as a white belt a person should have learned how to perform basic movements that will lay the groundwork for their development. White belts usually learn moves independent of each other in the hopes of perfecting the technique and learning how the moves should feel. As blue belts, they now begin to put the moves together and see how they flow in sequences.
In my post about white belts, I used the analogy that you are gathering tools for your Jiu Jitsu "toolbox." It is now time to learn how to use those tools. At the blue belt level you should begin to see how a choke can transition into an armbar, because to defend a choke the person may push away, thus exposing his arm. Also, blue belts need to see that sweeps and submissions function together. For example, if I am attacking a person inside my guard and they lean their weight forward to stop an armbar attack, I feel that shift in weight and use it to my advantage to sweep them and turn the position over.
I remember my biggest mistake as a new blue belt was to go through all my moves as if I was checking them off an imaginary list. I would first start with attacks, going through all my favorite ones first. If my attacks didn't work, then I would try to sweep the person. If the sweeps didn't work, I'd go back to my list of attacks. I realized that as I did this the person would figure out my timing and I could feel them advancing position, and getting the better of me. Frustration and panic would set in as I was running out of options, and eventually I was the one in the bad position and/or tapping.
"Pitfalls of Being a Blue Belt"
Unfortunately, I see two common mistakes with new blue belts. Both are just as damaging to the progress of the athlete as they move into a new phase of their learning. The first group of blue belts in danger are the ones that feel their black, brown, or even purple belt are so far off in the distance. They think about how hard they had to work as a white belt to get the blue belt and figure they must work three times harder, or longer, if they wish to reach their black belt. Remember my story about the boy and the Karate master in my post "When You Seek It, You Can Not Find It". If you focus so much on the final goal, you can not focus on the actual path to get there. What blue belts in this group fail to realize is that from here on out, the process involves refining what they already know. There will be few "new" moves that a blue belt, purple belt, etc. will learn. Instead, what they will be learning is how to use what they already know. The unfortunate side effect for people who think like this is that they eventually drop out of BJJ, as they feel like it will just be too difficult to finish what they started. They lose the desire that kept them going as a white a belt and many of these people quit.
The next group of blue belts fall into what I call the "Blue Belt Masters" category. They feel that they have mastered all the basic things and spend their time on all the latest and greatest moves they find on the Internet or in books. Don't get me wrong, I find value in seeing what's new in the world of BJJ and trying out innovative new moves or positions. BUT, the problem I have is when people do so at the expense of neglecting the basics. Some blue belts figure they know how to do all the "white belt" moves and when these moves are being taught, they may practice it once or twice and stop to talk or work on another position. Or they may work through the movement by going through the motions and not focusing on what they are doing, figuring they already know this move. Perhaps they even try to 'teach' the move to other students on how it should be done. I can see the look in blue belts faces when we practice a simple bump-and-roll or elbow escape mount defense. They feel as if this move doesn't relate to them since it's a "white belt" technique. Immediately their mind loses focus and they are off in other directions. Yet, when I watch them perform the movement, their technique seems to be worse than a white belt that is actually focusing on learning the move!
As a blue belt, you are still learning. You still need the guidance of an instructor as you fine tune the skills you have. The most basic move can have a new detail reveal itself to you even though you've seen it a dozen times, or more, already. Do not lose focus on how you are learning and what you should be doing in class. There is still more to learn as you begin to understand the moves you developed as a white belt. In his book A Fighter's Mind, author Sam Sheridan refers to what's called the 10,000 hour rule. This refers to the belief that you can not truly expect to master something until you've spent 10,000 hours practicing it.
Until that time, you are still learning
“Fill up Your Toolbox”
When we first start out in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu there is so much going through our minds that we might seem overwhelmed with how much we don’t know. A white belt’s goal should be to just come to class and gather as many tools for their Brazilian Jiu Jitsu toolbox as they can. You may not know how, when or why to use these new tools, but it is just important to gather them and have them for later. White belts should not worry about what the higher ranking belts are doing, or how they are doing the techniques. White belts will learn techniques differently than higher ranking belts and will need to practice them at a different pace. Moves are often taught to white belts in a way that breaks down the movements into specific parts. It is necessary to practice the correct movements as shown by the instructor. Each movement will relate to something else that you will learn later. You may not see the relationship between different techniques or positions yet, but you will be surprised to learn that when you break down each move or position, there are a lot of similarities.
“Look, Listen, Feel”
Some students learn by listening, others by watching, and others by doing. It is important as a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu student that you use all your senses to be able to learn each new move and position. Watch how the instructor moves when he is doing the technique. Listen to how he is describing key points to each position. When training with a higher ranking belt, feel how they do the move or where their weight is distributed. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires an extreme level of sensitivity and connectedness with the moves and the practitioner.
“Survive and Move on”
The biggest mistake I see a white belt make is when it comes time to spar in training. They may be sparring with a higher belt, and their strategy seems to be to try and match their partner move for move. This does not make sense, you are trying to submit someone who has had more time to practice the moves, and defenses, and has probably developed their timing to a level well above yours. Of course things happen and you could get lucky, but more than often the white belt ends up putting themselves in a worse position by constantly attacking.
When most of us think of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu we might picture a submission, or choke hold and obviously those are the key ingredients of BJJ. However, more than half of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is NOT getting submitted yourself and put into a bad position. I can teach anyone to twist an opponents limb, or choke them into submission, but if you are constantly fighting off your opponent’s attacks, or always find yourself in a bad position, knowing 100 submissions will not help you. Surviving should be the main focus of any white belt, especially when you start sparring. Building a good, defensive base will allow you to set moves up better, and above all, that is what we are learning isn’t it?…. Self-DEFENSE.
Above all else, have fun with coming to class and learning something new each day. Don’t get mad if you forget or can’t remember moves, you will see them again and taught a different way. Master Caique has a saying posted up and around his school and it is the simplest and easiest formula to getting your black belt:
“A Black Belt is Just a White Belt that Never Quit”